Inside the rehearsal room: Sam Strong on Masquerade


Director Sam Strong reveals the truly galactic journey Masquerade has taken to the Sydney Festival stage, as the company wraps their first few weeks of rehearsals.

Just over a week ago, I arrived at a rehearsal room at UNSW for the first day of Masquerade rehearsals.

Rehearsing a Griffin show is always a lovely experience for me and UNSW is full of memories. The last time I was there was during a particularly stifling summer to rehearse another Griffin/Sydney Festival collaboration, The Boys.

But the most lovely thing about the first day of rehearsals for Masquerade was how long we had been working toward that moment.

In 2010, shortly after I was appointed Artistic Director of Griffin, I approached Kate Mulvany to be one of the inaugural artists in residence for the Griffin Studio. We agreed that she would develop her adaptation of Kit Williams’ classic 1970s children’s book: Masquerade. Over the ensuing 5 years, the project evolved through countless iterations and possible versions, from a boutique show in the SBW Stables to the ultimate multi-state multi-festival work it has become. There were script discussions, developments with a host of wonderful actors, pitches to the Major Festivals Initiative, musical workshops, interstate design intensives and a research excursion to the Melbourne Children’s Hospital.

Jennifer Parsonage, Anna Cordingley, Sam Strong, Nescha Jelk
Kate Mulvany & Helen Dallimore – in the Masquerade rehearsal room

If the Griffin journey to the first day of rehearsal has been an epic one, Kate Mulvany’s has been positively interstellar. The story behind Kate’s adaptation has been well documented elsewhere. What has always struck me is that the story of how Kate fell in love with the book and came to adapt it is as beautiful and as moving as any work of fiction. Moreover, Kate’s love for the story has proven highly contagious. To invoke the imagery of Masquerade, it has been the sun around which everyone else has come to orbit, from the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals, to the State Theatre Company of South Australia. It’s fitting that that orbit now also includes not one but two directors – a super-band-esque fusion of Griffin’s past and present that enables Lee Lewis and I to join forces. Generally as a director you’re the ultimate single parent. Raising the Masquerade family together with another director that you enjoy hanging out with as much as you admire is a rare treat, even if you suspect you might be the bad cop in the arrangement.

At the end of the first week of rehearsal, we sat in a circle and read the play again. It was the latest draft that Kate had refined over the previous few days and included new versions of the songs written by Mikelangelo and Pip Branson of Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen fame. I looked around the room at the end of the read and realised how many people had been crying. We were crying because of how moving Kate’s words already were. But we were also crying because we all sensed that rare potential to make something extraordinary.

You begin every theatrical project hoping to make a sublime work of art that will transform people’s lives. That quest – that faith – animates every act of theatrical creation, from the most underground of independent shows in a crumbling cellar to a Major Festival work of scale. Of course, you rarely (if ever) get there. But sometimes you sense that your chances of arriving might be higher than normal. The component parts of Masquerade – Kit’s book, Kate’s adaptation, the gorgeous design, the music and musicians, the cast, the Festival and company support, the directorial co-parenting – give us a pretty fabulous shot. I’ve made enough shows to realise the slippery role of serendipity in the alchemy of making a great night in the theatre. Whether we end up with a sublime work of art or not, if the rest of the journey is anywhere near as enjoyable, moving and beautiful as the journey to the start of Masquerade rehearsals, you’re in for a treat. If we can manage to meet and share but a small portion of the love that has gone into Kate’s adaptation, Masquerade will be adding a few more stars to its orbit in January at the Sydney Opera House. Looking forward to seeing you there.

Sam Strong

Sam Strong is Associate Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company and was Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company from 2010-2012. He won the 2013 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Director for his production of The Floating World and is co-director of Masquerade with Lee Lewis. 

Masquerade plays from 7-17 January as part of this year’s Sydney Festival. For more information, see here.